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Section Five

Light in Montana: How One Town Said No to Hate

by Jo Clare Hartsig and Walter Wink town center

Montana, long known as “big sky” territory, is vast and beautiful, like all its northwestern neighbors. One might assume that there is room enough for everyone. Yet over the past decade the five-state area of Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana has been designated a “white homeland” for the Aryan Nation and growing numbers of kindred skinheads, Klan members, and other white supremacists. These groups have targeted nonwhites, Jews, gays, and lesbians for harassment, vandalism, and injury, which in some cases has led to murder.

In Billings, Montana (pop.83,000) there have been a number of hate crimes: desecration of a Jewish cemetery, threatening phone calls to Jewish citizens, swastikas painted on the home of an inter-racial couple. But it was something else that activated the people of faith and goodwill throughout the entire community.

On December 2, 1993, a brick was thrown through 5-year-old Isaac Schnitzer’s bedroom window. The brick and shards of glass were strewn all over the child’s bed. The reason? A menorah and other symbols of Jewish faith were stenciled on the glass as part of the family’s Hanukkah celebration. The account of the incident in the Billings Gazette the next day reported that Isaac’s mother, Tammie Schnitzer, was troubled by the advice she got from the investigating officer. He suggested that she remove the symbols. How would she explain this to her son?

Another mother in Billings was deeply touched by that question. She tried to imagine explaining to her children that they couldn’t have a Christmas tree in the window or a wreath on the door because it wasn’t safe. She remembered what happened when Hitler ordered the king of Denmark to force Danish Jews to wear the Star of David. The order was never carried out because the king himself and many other Danes chose to wear the yellow stars. The Nazis lost the ability to find their “enemies.”

There are several dozen Jewish families in Billings. This kind of tactic could effectively deter violence if enough people got involved. So Margaret McDonald phoned her pastor, the Rev. Keith Torney at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, and asked what he thought of having Sunday school children make paper cut-out menorahs for their own windows. He got on the phone with his clergy colleagues around town, and the following week menorahs appeared in the windows of hundreds of Christian homes. Asked about the danger of this action, police chief Wayne Inman told callers, “There’s greater risk in not doing it.”

Five days after the brick was thrown at the Schnitzer home, the Gazette published a full-page drawing of a menorah, along with a general invitation to put it up. By the end of the week at least six thousand homes (some accounts estimate up to ten thousand) were decorated with menorahs.

A sporting goods store got involved by displaying “Not in our town! No hate. No violence. Peace on earth” on its large billboard. Someone shot at it. Townpeople organized a vigil outside the synagogue during Sabbath services. That same night bricks and bullets shattered windows at Central Catholic High school, where an electric marquee read “Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish Friends.” The cat of a family with a menorah was killed with an arrow. Windows were broken at a United Methodist Church because of its menorah display. The car and house windows of six non-Jewish families were shattered. A note that said “Jew lover” was left on a car.

Eventually these incidents waned, but people continued in their efforts to support one another against hate crimes. After being visited at home and threatened by one of the local skinhead leaders, Tammie Schnitzer is now always accompanied by friends when she goes on her morning run. During the Passover holiday the following spring, 250 Christians joined their Jewish brothers and sisters in a traditional Seder meal. New friendships have formed, new traditions have started, and greater mutual understanding and respect have been achieved.

Last winter families all over Billings took out their menorahs to reaffirm their commitment to peace and religious tolerance. The light they shared in the community must be continuously rekindled until hate has been overcome.

Reprinted with permission from Fellowship (Jan/Feb 1995), published by the Fellowship for Reconciliation, an organization committed to non-violent resolution of racial and international conflict, P.O. Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960 (914) 358-4601.

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